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This is a story of two women hermits, separated by great geographical distance,  but fairly close in time, and very close in spirit and attitude and orientation.  This is also a story of two persons who overcame the misogyny of their cultures, secular and religious, and lived out their transcendent calling to light our path to the Absolute Reality which is the ground of our being.


The first one to be considered is Orgyan Chokyi, a Tibetan Buddhist nun and a hermitess.  The dates given for her are 1675 – 1729.  There are many remarkable facts about this person, but two just for starters: she actually wrote an autobiography—how unusual and amazing that is for a hermit and a woman in that setting to do so, and then most amazing of all the manuscript was lost until it was discovered in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery sometime around 1990 and recently translated.  Otherwise we would not know anything about her! The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is translated into English with commentary in Himalayan Hermitess: The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Nun, by Kurtis R. Schaeffer


So she was born in 1675 in a remote area of the Himalayas, which today is in the North East part of Nepal.  It was a hard life in an arid and rocky terrain, depending on herding for a livelihood (she herded goats); and with the ever-present possibility of warfare, violence, famine, disease, and enforced labor.  The religious culture of the institutional lamas formed a kind of religious elite, but popular religiosity (as always and everywhere—including Christianity) was also very prevalent with its many “sacred figures”, magic, and varied superstitions.  But for our purposes the key characteristic was the misogyny of the culture, so true of many traditional cultures and carried over into modern society in many hidden ways.  This misogyny is then incorporated into religious doctrine and “poisons the well” of each and every religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.  With both religion and culture telling women that they are in fact inferior, they then in turn internalize this and accept it as real and true.  In Buddhism there was a tendency to see liberation as for men only, and so a woman had to “become a man” as it were in order to achieve liberation.  The same kind of thing you saw happening in the Egyptian desert among the early Christian desert monks, for whom praise for a woman hermit consisted in claiming she had finally “become a man” or was equal now to a man.  Femaleness in and of itself was never regarded as a “divine manifestation” or a bearer of “absolute reality.”  It’s with this as a background that you need to come to this remarkable woman hermit.

This is from a description of the book by the publisher:

Himalayan Hermitess  is a vivid account of the life and times of a Buddhist nun living on the borderlands of Tibetan culture. Orgyan Chokyi  spent her life in Dolpo, the highest inhabited region of the Nepal Himalayas. Illiterate and expressly forbidden by her master to write her own life story, Orgyan Chokyi received divine inspiration, defied tradition, and composed one of the most engaging autobiographies of the Tibetan literary tradition.
The Life of Orgyan Chokyi is the oldest known autobiography authored by a Tibetan woman, and thus holds a critical place in both Tibetan and Buddhist literature. In it she tells of the sufferings of her youth, the struggle to escape menial labor and become a hermitess, her dreams and visionary experiences, her relationships with other nuns, the painstaking work of contemplative practice, and her hard-won social autonomy and high-mountain solitude. In process it develops a compelling vision of the relation between gender, the body, and suffering from a female Buddhist practitioner’s perspective.
Part One of Himalayan Hermitess presents a religious history of Orgyan Chokyi’s Himalayan world, the Life of Orgyan Chokyi as a work of literature, its portrayal of sorrow and joy, its perspectives on suffering and gender, as well as the diverse religious practices found throughout the work. Part Two offers a full translation of the Life of Orgyan Chokyi. Based almost entirely upon Tibetan documents never before translated, Himalayan Hermitess is an accessible introduction to Buddhism in the premodern Himalayas.”


There is also this review of the book in a journal of Tibetan Studies:!jiats=/02/rev_schaeffer/


Now the book itself might not be everyone’s cup of tea in that it is a long and scholarly tome—the actual autobiography is only about 60 pages long while most of the book is about the Tibetan background and history of this period.  At least a couple of Amazon reviewers were disenchanted by what they found—too scholarly I guess.  But there is a lovely summary of the whole book and the Life part especially in Hermitary and here is the link to that:


I think the Hermitary summary at the end is just about perfect:

“The Life of Orgyan Chokyi testifies to an arduous path toward solitude. We witness the rigors of spiritual practice culminating in eremitism, a pattern analogous to early Christian practice. The translator points out other analogies with women spiritual figures in the West.  Regardless of doctrinal discouragement, Orgyan Chokyi persisted in the methods of meditation, fully conscious of her suffering and her status as a woman. The example of her perseverance encourages the reader to understand that our circumstances and environment, however strong their negative influence, are distinct from mind and consciousness. That any one person could overcome the circumstances of culture, society, family, and institutionalism is an inspiration to the human spirit.”


The other hermitess that we will discuss is Sarah Bishop.  She is closer to us in place and time, but actually probably more mysterious in that we have very little information about her.  She was born about two decades before the American Revolution in what is now the State of New York, Long Island I believe.  During the Revolutionary War British soldiers burned her house down, killed her family and kidnapped her and raped her.  She eventually escaped them but never returned to “normal” human society but lived in the woods as a hermitess somewhere on the border of New York and Connecticut.  At first, as you can well imagine, it was probably simply the trauma and nightmare of her experience with the British soldiers that drove her into this solitude, but eventually this solitude proved to be healing and it then  transformed her life into something transcending all the usual human categories and designations and limitations.  It must be remembered that rape is primarily a brutal crime of domination and degradation of the female by the male, and it is toward this wound that her solitude was a healing and an overcoming.


For almost three decades she lived in the woods with a shallow cave as her home.  People from the nearby town accepted her in her mysterious presence but had no explanation for what she was about.  Here we have several accounts from some contemporaries of hers who happened to have met her in the woods and later wrote about it:




There is a little-known essay by Thomas Merton, written in the late 1950s, and I believe it appears only in the collection Disputed Questions.  Its title is “Notes Toward a Philosophy of Solitude.”  It is probably his most profound thinking on solitude and the hermit life.  And what is striking is that he is not so much interested in the person who has a “clear” vocation to solitude and ends up in one of the recognized monastic orders or as a canonical hermit, etc. The life of these people is very clear and straightforward even if it does involve a lot of interior “difficulties.” No, it is not about these that Merton reflects on here, but rather he ponders those various individuals from various backgrounds who find themselves in an enigmatic solitude, almost inspite of themselves and not because of some clear idea of what they are called to live.  This is a solitude that one is thrown into, a solitude that is inexplicable, perhaps even anguish-riddled, perhaps totally unsought for.  It is not so much that a person chooses this solitude; rather it is Solitude itself that chooses this person.  And this person finds himself/herself immersed in a solitude that they cannot explain to anyone else, but their silence and peace is “telling”—for solitude here is the sacrament of the Deep Self where you are one with Absolute Reality and in communion with all.


But this is not a solitude that is socially approved even by a religious institution, nor by its very nature even understandable to anyone.  And the solitary one cannot look into a mirror and see his/her own solitariness as something approvable and commendable.  Its bare simplicity, perhaps its “shabbiness,” perhaps its countercultural aspects that make it “unacceptable” in “ordinary society,” perhaps its personal pain, all or any of these are a truly potent “veil” that hides even from the solitary one the true meaning of that solitude.  It breaks the bounds of what any society can “recognize.”  In a sense this solitude was prefigured by the Divine Cloud in the Old Testament, the mysterious Presence of the Divine.  In any case, for Sarah Bishop war and man had brutalized her, impoverished her totally, and dehumanized her completely; but in the subsequent solitude Sarah Bishop discovered something that far transcended both her and our limited humanity and feeble articulations.



Snowden, Dupuis, Global Warming, Simply Dobri, Etc.

Recently I had a chat with a man who is a descendant of the famed Civil War general, Phil Sheridan, who happened also to be the commanding general of George Armstrong Custer.  In our conversation about his ancestor, this man showed heart and common sense in that he did not disassociate himself from his ancestor nor deny what he had done.  In fact he was quite frank in calling him a “murderer.”  Sheridan killed Native Americans.  That’s what he was sent to do in the West by the financial interests back East—clear the land of Indians for the railroad and mining interests and the push West.  This is an America they generally don’t teach about in school or the usual history textbooks.  We are all living with the “benefits” of this kind of activity, and in Lent that is good to acknowledge.  In that spirit, I would like to offer 3 other presentations that foster a certain kind of Lenten acknowledgment that is badly needed.  This involves the State, the Church, and the World.


So first we visit the State.

Everyone has heard about Mr. Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, so we will not go over the details of what he has done and the consequences to his life.  However, recently there was a debate at Oxford (the famous Oxford Union Debates) on the merits of what Snowden did.  Christopher Hedges was on the team defending Snowden and calling him a moral hero, while another team took the position that Snowden’s acts were despicable and harmful.  Here is the link to Hedges’s presentation:

or you can catch it here:



As usual Hedges is forceful, brilliant, and worth listening to.  There is much in what he has to say.



Next we take a look at the Global Community.

Everyone knows about the global warming controversy.  There are several different arguments that have been prominent, but the one that denies that there is climate change can be discarded because that is simply a denial of the facts.  However, the real argument is around this issue:  to what extent is global climate warming caused by human beings and to what extent this is a kind of cyclical phenomenon.  There are valid facts on both sides of the issue and it is far from settled.  There also is another version of the “non-human” change: the sun is simply getting hotter.  Not many have considered that possibility.  The archaeological and geological record certainly shows that there were much hotter periods in the Earth’s history and that was long before any human intervention. The fact is that many environmentalists do not want to or cannot admit that even if we were acting in the most environmentally responsible way, the planet may be doomed for lifeways as we know it now.  The heat would go up and up irregardless of what we do or don’t do.  Where I live now, 12000 years ago it was mild and very wet with many lakes all around—you can even see where the water level was in the hillsides.  But now it is a stark desert, dry and much warmer.  All this happened without any human intervention.  In any case, the real situation is most likely a combination of both scenarios.  Human irresponsibility is probably exacerbating what might be a natural change.  Now for a very cogent and thorough presentation of the “human-caused” change evidence– here is a very good presentation.

And now for the Church.

This is a complicated story, but a reasonably short report on this appeared in a recent issue of the National Catholic Reporter.  Lets introduce the cast of characters:  everyone knows Cardinal Ratzinger, the future pope before this one—at this point in the story he is the “watchdog” over Catholic doctrine—he is in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  The other person is Jacques Dupuis, a good Jesuit theologian who had been teaching for many years in a seminary in India and who had befriended Abhishiktananda in the later years of his life.  Dupuis writes a theological book which is his attempt to understand and explain, within the parameters of Catholic theology, the phenomenon of religious pluralism.   The Vatican reacts very negatively toward this work.  What is shocking is not so much the disagreement the Congregation has with Dupuis, but the really serious distortions it presents of his ideas and the unfairness of the whole process.  Gerald O’Collins is the third person, another Jesuit theologian and friend of Dupuis, who also served as a kind of “defense attorney” for Dupuis at the various hearings,and here he gives a short account of that whole miserable episode.  Some say that it drove poor Dupuis to an early death; he was so heart-broken that the official church held him suspect when he was trying very hard to be faithful both to the facts of history and to Catholic doctrine and be a loyal son of the Church.


So here we are in Lent and in great need of repentance.  And this can only begin when we acknowledge our own participation in the collective sin of our state, our world, our church. But as an antitode to our collective darkness I offer the story of Dobri Dobrev.  He is an elderly man, about 98 years old, who lives in Bulgaria and who has been written about in some news stories around the world.  It appears some people are struck by him and his example.  He is a veteran of World War II and he lives on a meager pension of about $100 a month in one room with very humble furnishings.  He spends his whole day on the streets of Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia; and people spontaneously give him money.  He gives all that money to orphanages, monasteries and churches.  He just prays and begs and gives things away; that’s all he does but now some are calling him a “holy man.”  Here is a website with some nice photos of him:



I prefer to see it in the Biblical way—only God is good; only God is holy.  Some people tend to see holiness as some kind of stuff which you acquire by doing certain things; or as a reputation you get by again doing certain things.  Some see it as a collection of virtues or as a concentration of this or that virtue, like humility, etc.  But really, holiness is nothing more nor nothing less than another way of saying we have a manifestation of God’s Presence, God’s Reality here and now.  And a true manifestation of this Ultimate Reality is also inextricably bound with an Ultimate Hiddenness because it is also a manifestation of Ultimate Mystery, so true holiness will always have some share in a kind of hiddenness which may be peculiar and paradoxical in a given situation.  True holiness is always truly unique in the sense that it is rooted in the infinite and absolute uniqueness of that person and hidden in the Secret of that person’s identity.  The Russian veneration of the “Fools for Christ” is in this vein.  Anyway, old Dobri Dobrev is assuredly a “holy man,” a true manifestation of God and especially because he is “simply Dobri.”


But I will give Milarepa the last word, the true word for our Lent.


All worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings in destruction; meetings in separation; births, in death. Knowing this, one should, from the very first, renounce acquisition and heaping up, and building, and meeting; and faithful to the commands of an eminent guru, set about realizing the Truth (which has no birth or death).” ~ Milarepa


Dostoevsky and the Russian Fable of The Onion and Ash Wednesday

Since I mentioned in passing this Russian fable as a parable pointing to the reality of Advaita in a previous posting, I figure I better explain myself!  Actually this little story is incredibly rich and worth considering on its own merits, so let us begin.  The version I have appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and it pretty much reads the same in all translations:

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”


So first of all let us consider this story simply in the context of Christian spirituality and especially of Russian spirituality.  The underlying atmosphere of this fable can be found in that lovely Russian word, “sobornost,” (this person is an icon you might say of “anti-sobornost”) which has only a weak rendering in English as “communion.”  In fact various philosophical approaches to sobornost mischaracterize it even more.  It is a theological/spiritual term for a profound communion  which values at once and at the same time both the infinite uniqueness of the person (because it is rooted in the infinite reality of God) and the unspeakable communion and interrelatedness of all reality.  Sobornost points to a kind of oneness that is in fact a key characteristic of “being saved.”  One might even say that it is a kind of prelude to the advaita, the nonduality, of which Abhishiktananda speaks.  Here he pushes beyond the orthodox Hindu model into a distinctly Christian vision when he points out that non-duality is not only the condition of our life with God but also with our brothers and sisters.   We are not “two” but “one.”


So then the reality of hell is nothing more than the paralysis in the thought of “I” and “me,” the thought of “myself” and “mine.”  An isolated, fragmented self is the ambience of hell and endless suffering.  “Salvation,” then, is the realization that one must abandon all of that superficial selfhood and find our real self in Christ: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This is not all that far from basic Buddhist teaching: so long as we fixate on the thought of self in our heart, we find ourselves in hell.  But also here we are on the way to advaita, non-duality, where “I” and “you” are no longer absolute designations of absolute separateness where we live in our own separate worlds  (Sarte’s “Hell is other people” comes from that where our own self is in constant friction with other selves and seemingly limited by these other selves; thus the other is a problem in this modern western view).   But “I” and “you” are merely “placemarkers” as it were within one reality that encompasses our oneness.  It is only then that we begin to realize the meaning of “sacrifice” and “love.”  These are no longer the isolated acts of an individual inevitably acting for his own self-good, but they are now simply an opening into Reality where there are no calculations of what is “to my benefit.”

By the way, it is apparent from this story that even the smallest “good deed” can catapult us into this realization.   Even an onion skin.

Here is what Elder Zosima says to the young Alyosha Karamazov about hell…

“What is hell? I maintain it is the suffering of no longer being able to love.”


Very shortly it will be Ash Wednesday for many of us Christians.  Many of us Catholics will be seen with a smudge of ash on our foreheads.  Actually it should be sannyasi-like and put all over our bodies because what is really symbolized is that we are all afflicted with this problem of a transient, superficial, isolated identity that we absolutize into something that becomes incredibly substantial—our sense of this limited “I-ness.”  But it is only “dust”—and this is what the minister proclaims upon each one of us.  Unfortunately we mostly take it in a way that reinforces that illusory self in its illusory isolation—it becomes “my onion”—it becomes a matter of “saving myself.”  Perhaps we can borrow something from Mahayana Buddhism…the Bodhisattva notion and adapt it to our own “salvation story.”  The Bodhisattva seeks salvation/liberation not for him/herself alone but for the sake of all sentient beings because he realizes that his identity, if one may use that word, is not “I” or “me” or “mine,” but always “we”.  Compassion is then not some special “good deed” or “extraordinary isolated act” which we perform now and then, but simply the way things are.  Compassion is then like our breathing. But this takes us far afield!


Long time ago I recall the renowned Berkeley sociologist, Robert Bellah, speaking of the individualistic ethos of America.  In the course of his talk he said that the whole point of a rich man owning a Mercedes instead of a simple Ford is that the rest of us cannot own the Mercedes.  In other words that ownership reinforces his sense of “separateness”—he is different from you and me.  That’s what wealth allows him to do—it facilitates this feeling of “apartness” and thus of “specialness.”  Owning a Ford would make him just like everybody else.  So wealth plays this insidious role of paralyzing us in this illusory separate self that defines itself in the differences that wealth brings.  But it is not just the actual material wealth that is the problem; rather it is the desire for wealth, the desire deep in our hearts—and this “wealth” can take on many forms indeed.  So with Ash Wednesday, with Lent, we are called to a profound repentance, to recognize what is “dust,” to awaken to our true identity in Christ as Christian Bodhisattvas, and to be prepared for that moment when we will be tempted to say “It’s my onion.”



Two Paradigms of Encounter With Ultimate Reality

At times this blog seems to have become an “Abhishiktananda Blog” but that is not the case. It’s only that I consider this person the most significant religious figure of our time, and his lived experience and his words beckon us to a journey that most of us never heard of in any theology classroom, in any religious community, or in any standard Catholic teaching. Or if we did “hear” of it, it was almost a “whisper” expressed in very disguised language. Yes, there was Merton, a relief for most of us, but he was only a “beginning”—read his meditation in Asian Journal on Christ as the Door and you will see hints of a radical rethinking going on in his own mind. But Abhishiktananda probably went further. That does not mean he does not have his limitations—he does, and plenty of them. That also means we need other voices, other lights also, to focus on this path, on this journey. That’s why we often turn to our Sufi friends and sometimes to our Buddhist friends. Among other things, Abhishiktananda tells us that it is no longer wise to journey in an isolated tradition. So this is what this blog is all about, this path, this journey, with an occasional foray into “current events.”

In the last posting I gave a quote, advice from De Lubac to Monchanin when the latter was leaving for India. I discovered that quote was a redacted one, so here is the complete quote, and even more interesting: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology through mysticism, freeing it from everything incidental, regaining, through spirituality alone, everything essential.” Very, very important words. And it was not Monchanin who followed this advice but his partner, Abhishiktananda—and De Lubac could never guess, I think, how deep his own words could go.

I am glad for that reference by De Lubac to “mysticism”—a word that has been badly corrupted and misused and thoroughly misunderstood. This blog has been an attempt to recapture this word for some “ordinary” religious usage, to salvage it from what our culture considers as weird or exotic or special. In fact many religious people themselves tend to criticize all mentions of all such terms as “elitism,” or impractical and not having to do with people’s real problems. I am especially bewildered by the charge of “elitism” at any talk of mysticism. You will recall Karl Rahner’s famous statement: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not be.” Indeed! This is what Abhishiktananda was seeking—the uncovering, the awakening of this mysticism in all its fullness within Christianity. He had discovered through his encounter with Arunachala and Ramana Maharshi and the Advaita of the Upanishads the radical accessibility of this Ultimate Reality we call God, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality—closer to him than he was to himself (in Augustine’s words). The one thing that Abhishiktananda was NOT was an elitist. For him mysticism was just as basic to life and everyday living as breathing. The Presence of that Reality was always and everywhere THERE where you were doing whatever you were engaged in. To say that he was not sensitive to simple human problems in pursuit of the mystical depths is a serious mistake. And to claim that the radical contemplative/mystical journey is something that is a luxury for those fighting for social justice or simply trying to make it in life is a tragic and profound mistake.

True, Abhishiktananda wanted the Christian community to recognize the importance and significance of those who are drawn into this Mystery in a kind of exclusive way—these folk are also very much in great need within the Christian community for its own self-understanding. But that did not mean that the mystical depths were only accessible by these “few”—but rather the mystical depths are in their radical simplicity at your fingertips wherever you are, whoever you are—that was Abhishiktananda’s teaching. Listen to this letter he writes to a housewife:

“I would not know how to give a good answer to the question whether Christ is necessary for Hindus. I only know that plenty of people who do not know his person have access to his ‘mystery’(not to his ‘concept’) in their inner deepening and also in transcending themselves in the love of their brothers. The mystery of the Heart of Christ is present in the mystery of every human heart. You have found fulfillment through music, through painting. Art is also a way of access to the mystery, and perhaps—in poetry, painting, music—it reveals him better than any technical formula. And in the end it is this mystery—at once of oneself and of each person, of Christ and of God—that alone counts. The Awakening of the Resurrection is the awakening to this mystery! …Joy to you, to your husband, to your children. May it shed its rays on all! And don’t worry about those who love the esoteric, who run around to ashrams and ‘saints’. The discovery of the mystery is so much simpler than that. It is right beside you, in the opening of a flower, the song of a bird, the smile of a child!”

This was written in 1972 about a year before his death. Abhishiktananda’s teaching was about the radical accessibility, the radical simplicity, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality which we call God. Anywhere, anyplace, anytime. There is only the Awakening to that Reality in whatever way that our life unfolds. If we are drawn to live in silence with the abiding Presence, we are doing something very important for the Church and for all humanity. If we are drawn to feed and clothe the poor in a Catholic Worker community, for example, we are still to “know, love and serve the Lord” within a non-dualistic framework and in a non-dualistic realization of profound depth which rightly can be called “mysticism.” “Whenever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me”—words that are not taken seriously enough, profoundly enough by all of us. Somewhere Abhishiktananda says that we cannot be speaking of “one” when in our lives and activities we are acting as “two.” True advaita, real non-duality means that we live this advaita with our fellow human beings—perhaps this is an emphasis not found in Hinduism per se. (Recall Merton’s famous “awakening” episode that he writes about in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his realization on a downtown street corner in Louisville that he and all those other people, “strangers,” were really and truly “one.” This was a real experience of Advaita, and it is interesting that he speaks of it as an awakening. Such is also the language he uses in that famous moment depicted in the Asian Journal before the great Buddha statues. Awakening is the language we use as the Real opens before our eyes.) And if we are married and raising a family, the sexual love between husband and wife are true and actualizing symbols of our non-dual relationship with this Ultimate Reality. That’s why so much mysticism borrows erotic language to express that non-dual state.

Christian mysticism gives all kinds of indications of non-dualistic realizations and not just in Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics but also in so many other varied personages. (You can interpret St. Francis along these lines—the mythic stigmata, his “brother, sister” language, etc.) Usually the non-dualistic language is expressed through a whole matrix of symbology and a layer of bhakti-like expressions which suit ordinary everyday human psychology. “I turn to you;” “I turn to God”—in everyday human psychology these two “turns” seem to indicate a very similar “motion” and structure. It is only when we begin to Awaken that we begin to discover that the second “turn” is of a profoundly different nature, but we may still use the same language.

All kinds of diversifications are significant as long as we are “on earth” and “in history,” but once we are “in heaven,” that is once we awaken to this Reality and our constant abiding within its loving Presence, the particulars of our life really will not matter in the same way as Scripture itself seems to hint—recall, there is “no marriage in heaven, no male or female, nor Jew or Gentile.” In fact ultimately there will be no “heaven” and no “earth” (and dare I say it, “no hell”—like St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to indicate when he prayed for those “in hell” that hell might be emptied out—and Dostoyevsky’s “onion skin” that reclaims a person from “hell”, is that not an incredible symbol of the non-dual character of Christian realization)–there will be no “heaven” and no “earth,” there will be only God—if we want to use a name.

So now we proceed to take a look at this interesting essay by an Indian Jesuit, Sebastian Painadath: “The Spiritual Encounter of East and West.” Normally I run away from such titles! But Fr. Painadath has written a thoughtful essay on a serious issue of this thing called “mysticism.” There seems to be two distinctly different patterns of the human experience of the Divine, and one pattern seems to dominate in the West and the other in the East. He calls it the “Interpersonal” and the “Transpersonal” paradigms of religious experience, but really only the “transpersonal” (not to be confused with transpersonal psychology) seems to fit the name of “mysticism” in the classic sense. (Everything I wrote above would belong more in the Transpersonal Paradigm.) Also, both patterns can be found in every great religion, but one will be dominant here and the other dominant there. This can create some problems in understanding what each is saying if they are in fact speaking from these different paradigms. But this is not only an obstacle in interreligious dialogue but actually quite a problem for two different people within the same tradition. For example, a person who is focused on having a “personal relationship with Jesus” will have a hard time appreciating what a disciple of Eckhart is all about, and I am sure that an “Eckhartian” would not be very engaged by the “personal relationship” stuff. In any case, let us listen to Fr. Painadath’s presentation of the Interpersonal Paradigm:

“ …the Divine is experienced as a personal God. As a result an interpersonal relationship between the human person and God evolves; this is a relationship in the pattern of I-Thou. God, who is I, encounters the human thou in love; the human person, who thus becomes aware of his/her subjectivity, responds to the divine Thou in surrender. Encounter with the divine Thou is expressed through personalistic symbols like father, mother, lord, king, friend, bridegroom. The primary medium of communication between I and thou is the word: when one speaks the other listens. There is a constant dialectic between revelation and response, between the demanding word and obedient surrender. Disobedience to God’s Word…is sin…. The relationship between the human person and God gives rise to a spirituality with ethical overtones and a dominant sin-consciousness. Justice becomes the central concern of religious existence. Interpersonal relationship with God creates human communities with a keen spiritual sensitivity to interpersonal human relationships. Religion thus inevitably promotes social responsibility and creates salvific communities…. Since God is experienced as a personal Thou, devotional practices, vocal prayers, and structured rituals play significant roles in the practical religious life of the believers. Hence houses of worship, like temples and churches, exert a great influence in shaping the religious life of the believing community. Consequently a certain domination of cult officers like priests sets in…. Laws and regulations, norms and customs, well defined dogmas and precise rubrics play a decisive role in shaping the religious life of the believers.”

And now for a look at the Transpersonal Paradigm—very different:

“In the transpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as absolute mystery. No personalistic symbol can truly express the ineffable mystery of the Divine. Hence the seeker goes beyond all names and forms in search of the God-beyond-God. Transpersonal symbols—like ground of being, depth of existence, ineffable silence, within, and the ultimate Self of all—may surface in the course of this inner pursuit…. The medium in which one awakens to this awareness of the Mystery is contemplative silence. In silence one enters into the deeper levels of consciousness and even into the experience of oneness with the Ground of being. Transparency to the divine reality is the basic dynamic of this apophatic spirituality. Opaqueness to the Divine Light is sin; it is ignorance: not knowing what one truly is…. Transparency to the divine Ground is ultimately a matter of being: the transformation of consciousness that leads to a holistic perception of reality. Here spirituality assumes a cosmic dimension. When the divine Light within shines forth, one ‘sees the Divine in all things and all things in the Divine.’ This gnosis recreates the life of the human individual. Such an outlook on reality has mystical underpinnings. A holistic vision of reality is the fruit of enlightenment. Integration and harmony with all beings becomes the central concern of religious existence. Alienation of the individual from the totality of reality is considered to be the cause of all suffering; it is the possessive attitude of the mind that causes this alienation. Spirituality, therefore, means progressive liberation from egoism and insertion into the totality of reality…. In so far as the emphasis is placed on the individual seeker’s relentless quest for oneness with the Divine and consequently with all beings, external structures and practices of religion are not considered normative here.”

Now for a few comments:

a. Needless to say Fr. Painadath has a lot more to say about each paradigm. Both paradigms can be found in every religion in some fashion and even in the same spiritual seeker—even as they are in a tense relationship with one another, almost working against each other in some cases.
b. There are extreme examples of the Transpersonal Paradigm that just about totally exclude the Interpersonal. Consider the example of Ramana Maharshi.
c. Within Christianity it is obvious that the Interpersonal Paradigm dominates, but once you discover the Transpersonal experience, like Abhishiktananda, you try and find the Christian language for it and that is very difficult. There are a number of saints that indicate a profound mixture of both kinds of language, but you have to know how to read their language, like in St. Francis as I alluded to earlier. Or consider now the example of the great Russian saint and mystic, St. Seraphim. His whole teaching can be summed up in one sentence: the whole point of the Christian life is the possession of the Holy Spirit. And when in that famous scene of him and his lay disciple he describes the warmth and light of the Presence of the Holy Spirit it is a more Transpersonal depiction than an Interpersonal one and a true expression of Christian advaita. (Orthodox theologians probably would scream at me because the notion of “personhood” in the Divine is extremely important for them, but I think they would also agree that the modern use and understanding of the word “person” is totally inadequate and misleading as a designation for the reality of God.)
d. But now consider the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament. Certainly the Interpersonal Paradigm is there, but underneath the Semitic and Hellenistic language and symbology you can sense the thoroughly Transpersonal. This is especially true in the Gospel of John. This is what Abhishiktananda found and tried to communicate. His whole Christology became focused on this “I AM” experience of Jesus and his advaita with the “Father.” The whole point of being a Christian and the whole mission of the Church was to lead people to this awakening in Christ. It is a transcending of all I-Thou views of God.
e. If we are going to have a true Christian mysticism we need to rethink, revise, and re-interpret all of Christian theology. So De Lubac’s advice quoted above is really a call to rethink it all within the Transpersonal Paradigm without losing the Interpersonal Paradigm. But this will also mean a full “injesting of Asia” and a relativizing of Europe. Nothing less will do.
f. One final, personal note: When I was a little boy, I sometimes saw my grandmother go into her room and pray. She prayed the rosary everyday. She would sit on the edge of her bed and start murmuring the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys and pretty soon she would become very silent, eyes closed and be in a deep peace. Even as a little boy I could see that she was “somewhere else” even though her fingers kept slowly moving over the beads. She was very uneducated and I am sure all this talk of paradigms would confuse her, but I think I am still trying to get to that place where she was every day.

Abhishiktananda, a New Book, and Fr. Francis Tiso

In the current issue of Dilatato Corde, the monastic interreligious dialogue journal, there is a very interesting review by Fr. Francis Tiso of a relatively new book on the thought and significance of Abhishiktananda. The title of the book is: Cristo e l’Advaita:
La mistica di Henri Le Saux O.S.B. tra cristianesimo ed induismo.
Ok, the book is all in Italian, so it seems that those of us who can’t read Italian are stuck—but Fr. Tiso has come to our aid in giving such a comprehensive review that the reader of the review feels like he has read the book after reading the review. The book itself is a collection of papers given at a monastic-theological colloquim given in 2010 in Rome, and so it reflects a variety of viewpoints. Fr. Tiso’s review is thorough, cogent, and thought-provoking, and he does not hesitate to interject his own disagreements with the authors—thus inviting our own divergences both from his views and those of the authors. A true dialogue! I would like to point out some critical points of agreement and disagreement because there is actually a lot at stake in one’s interpretation of the life of Abhishiktananda. But I would like to begin with a kind of prolegomena to my comments in 4 parts(all of which will come into play in my critique of certain positions concerning Abhishiktananda):

. Bettina Baumer, the famed indologist and expert on Kashmir Shaivism, relates somewhere the story of her first academic paper she delivered. It was at the University of Vienna and it was on the topic of anUpaya(no-method) in Kashmir Shaivism. In the audience was the eminent Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. After her presentation, he took her aside and said to her,”Wir sind nur Waisenkinder.” Translation: “We are only children, orphans”—that is, compared to what these Indians have realized.
. When Monchanin was first setting out for India in the 1930s, his friend, the eminent Jesuit patristic scholar Henri De Lubac, gave him this advice: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology in terms of mysticism. And keep only what is essential.”
. Dances With Wolves was an award-winning movie from 2 decades ago. For many it was simply a “modern revival of the Western,” but the movie had unsuspected depths that few explored. It tells the story of a civil war soldier, John Dunbar, who is traumatized by his war experience and so he seeks to go as far West as he can to experience the wilderness before civilization gets there. He asks for the furthest out posting and he gets exactly that—he ends up alone in a dilapitated scout post in Lakota territory. While waiting for other soldiers to arrive, he encounters the native Lakota. He encounters them in the deepest sense of the term, not just in terms of an “exchange of views.” Thus begins a story of profound transformation. In the end his whole identity has changed and he is no longer a white soldier but “Dances with Wolves,” the name given him by his Lakota friends. The name change is very important and very significant, pointing to a new reality within him. In one sense he is still John Dunbar, but in another sense he is someone else now due to a new vision of what is real for him. He can never simply go back to the “white society.”
. From “Letter to a Priest” by Simone Weil:
“Every time that a man has, with a pure heart, called upon Osiris, Dionysus, Buddha, the Tao, etc., the Son of God has answered him by sending the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has acted upon his soul, not by inciting him to abandon his religious tradition, but by bestowing upon him light [-] It is, therefore, useless to send out missions to prevail upon the peoples of Asia, Africa or Oceania to enter the Church. Besides, it is written that the tree shall be known by its fruits. The Church has borne too many evil fruits for there not to have been some mistake at the beginning. Europe has been spiritually uprooted, cut off from that antiquity in which all the elements of our civilization have their origin; and she has gone about uprooting the other continents from the sixteenth century onwards. Missionary zeal has not Christianized Africa, Asia and Oceania, but has brought these territories under the cold, cruel and destructive domination of the white race, which has trodden down everything. It would be strange, indeed, that the word of Christ should have produced such results if it had been properly understood.

I will let the reader “connect the dots” from these four “witnesses” to uncover something that I think is missed by most of these kinds of conferences but which is very hard to put into words. In fact toward the end of his life, Abhishiktananda was not very favorable to such gatherings. Murray Rogers, probably his closest friend in India, tells us that Abhishiktananda was certainly interested in and enjoyed intellectual discussion, but there was one major proviso—he would listen to what any speaker had to say but the speaker’s words had to be backed up by his life. Something of his life had to be invested in those words for them to be taken seriously. Otherwise the effort was merely one of throwing labels and names on things.
Now let me just hit a few sporadic points at random from this book:
1. Fr. Tiso makes the point that no Hindus participated in this conference. Perhaps that is understandable because it was to be a theological-monastic conference looking at Abhishiktananda’s experience and writings from a Christian perspective. More problematic, and Fr. Tiso is right to point this out, is that almost none of the presenters touch on the real thorny issue of the goal and purpose of interreligious dialogue. In some parts of Asia, and in India with conservative Hindus (and in many Moslem countries), the suspicion is that Christians use dialogue as a subterfuge for conversion. The reason we are talking to all these people is that we want to convert them! It’s like when a pair of young Mormon men come to your door—very friendly, courteous, interested in talking to you about your life, your problems, etc.—but eventually it becomes an invite to come to the Mormon Church, read the Book of Mormon, and see that “we really have it together”! Now of course the people “on the ground” doing monastic interreligious dialogue do not engage their dialogue partners in this way or for this purpose(most of the time!), but what about the official Church? That’s another matter. Irregardless of how many documents there are from the Vatican with all that nice language about “appreciating” all these various religious traditions and how the Church values them all, the bottom line is that the Official Church wants them all “in the fold.” The official, theological, doctrinal self-understanding of the Church is that it is “evangelical,” “missionary,” “making disciples of all nations,” 24/7—it is NEVER not this. Even in dialogue. So the Church wants its monks and religious to be “present” within the cultural contexts of all these religious traditions and dialogue with them, but with a view of “informing” the other of the “riches of faith” and inviting them in. Thus, conversion has definitely taken on a different tone from the past, where the Church was trying to “save the lost,” but conversion still is the bottom line. The “official dialogues” can go no further than this in a sense, even though it may be intellectually stimulating, cordial and even inspiring. The “unofficial dialogues,” like Abhishiktananda’s was, is something else altogether. Here encounter can transcend dialogue, and a whole new self-understanding can emerge with profound implications for all parties. That’s where the real “rethinking” takes place!

2. Here’s a problem that I have with this conference/book which Fr. Tiso does not mention: the title. It is all about Henri Le Saux, not Abhishiktananda. This is not a trivial issue but indicative of a whole perspective on this man. Name changes can be superficial and simply “window-dressing,” but in Abhishiktananda’s case it pointed to something very deep in his own self-understanding and his relationship to all else, including the Church. In contrast, Monchanin, who also had a name change when he founded Shantivanam, taking on a certain “Indian flavor” as it were, never had that as his real name. It was a kind of “Indian label.” So to keep referring to Abhishiktananda as Le Saux is in fact a “Eurocentric” bias and indicative that we have not yet discovered the real transformation that has taken place.

3. I think that Fr. Tiso and the author of the first essay are mistaken when they lament the fact that Abhishiktananda and Monchanin did not engage enough the Catholic Christian community that had already been there for centuries. The fact is that these people were not really interested in or even friendly toward “dialogue” or even encounter with their Hindu brethren. This is well-documented in Abhishiktananda’s letters and diary. This is even true today to a large part as even Fr. Tiso alludes to. Progressive Indian Christians are more interested in “theologies of liberation” which address the very real social problems in India, while conservative and official Catholicism keeps Hinduism “at arm’s length.” The sannyasi tradition is increasingly seen as irrelevant to India’s present condition, and the “Advaita thing” is more often an object of study rather than of life. Scholars “talk the talk,” but how many “walk the walk.” Furthermore, certainly “inculturation” has taken place, but this is a tricky word that could be very superficial. Simply dressing like Indians, eating like Indians, etc. and incorporating some cultural forms within the various liturgies is merely scratching a surface. Fr. Tiso alludes to some of this in regard to liturgical inculturation and actual life in some of the Catholic ashrams.
4. Just my opinion but I think it is a serious mistake to view Abhishiktananda through the lens of Husserl and Heidegger. I think what you will then see is an Abhishiktananda of your own construction in a very modern European sense, never really getting to the core of his experience. In fact all those allusions to the “hidden modern European” in Abhishiktananda are a mirage, so is my contention. For example, his whole critique of religion does not come from some European consciousness/philosophy of religion, etc. Certainly he read modern thinkers like Teilhard and Jung and tried to use whatever scraps he could find to build a new Christian paideia that expressed his spiritual experience. This came from a true and profoundly deep encounter with the “other”—here the other was the advaitic experience within Hinduism as exemplified by Ramana Maharshi. In the movie mentioned above, Dances With Wolves has taken off his western clothes as a symbol of entering deep within the Lakota experience and vision. It is not a matter of “bracketing” his identity as some phenomenological experiment, but one of profound encounter and not merely “dialogue” or inculturation. I don’t think the Church is quite ready for that! But also think of some ancient examples. In the time of Jesus there were multiple Judaisms, not just one. In Alexandria the Jewish experience became transformed into something quite else as it encountered in a true sense Platonism and Neoplatonism. In Qumran they were translating Plato into Hebrew, indicating a thought-world foreign to the rabbis. In fact what we have in modern Judaism is a result of Rabbinic Judaism squashing all these other Jewish experiences and “rethinkings.”

5. Here are three relevant quotes from Abhishiktananda himself:
As early as 1953 he is saying: “Shantivanam…henceforth interests me so little. Arunachala has caught me. I have understood silence…. Now sannyasa is no longer a thought, a concept, but an inborn summons, a basic need; the only state that suits the depths into which I have entered….”
There is more than dialogue or inculturation going on here. From here on he will struggle to rethink the Christian message in the light of his Advaitic experience. His “rethinking” will have him still use “Jesus language” and “Church language” but now it will have a radically transformed content and direction. Note this quote:
“Whether I want it or not, I am deeply attached to Christ and the koinonia of the Church…. It was under his image, his symbol, that I came to know God and the world of men…. When I woke in India to new depths within myself this symbol became marvellously expanded. Christian theology had already revealed to me the eternal dimension of Jesus. India showed me…the immeasurable Christ, higher than the heavens and also infinitely close…. Moreover, I recognized this mystery, which I have always adored under the symbol of Christ, in the myths of Shiva, Krishna, Rama. This same mystery. But for me Jesus is my sadguru.”
Finally, very close to his death he has this to say:
“Even more after my beyond life/death experience of 14/7 I can only aim at awakening people to what ‘they are.’ Anything about God or the Word, in any religion, which is not based on the deep I-experience is bound to be simply ‘notion’, not existential. Of course I can make use of Christ experience to lead Christians to ‘I AM’ experience, yet it is this I AM experience which really matters…. Christ is this very mystery ‘that I AM.’ And in this experience and existential knowledge all christology has disintegrated. It is taking to the end the revelation that we are all ‘sons of God’…. If at all I had to give a message it would be the message of ‘wake up’, ‘arise,’ ‘remain aware’ of the Katha Upanishad…. I feel too much, more and more the blazing fire of this I AM in which all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history etc. have disappeared, and I find his real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos….”

7. The Church is probably a few centuries away from understanding these words and being able to really and truly “rethink” its self-understanding in the light of the mystical experience of all the great religious traditions. One might also say that Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are also in the same predicament, more or less, and perhaps have even a more difficult path toward transformation. I mean we do have one ancient example: when Indian Buddhism travelled to China and encountered the “Chinese mindset” and Taoism it was transformed in some very significant ways. It was not simply inculturation! Today’s Buddhism in the modern West is having some real problems along that line. So Chrisitianity is not the only one with this problem. And by the way transformation will happen because encounter now is inevitable even in spite of deep and innate conservative forces within each tradition.

8. Yes, most assuredly the Rhineland-Flemish mystics of Medieval Europe do offer a “gold mine” of possibilities to see how a language of Christian non-dualism could emerge. By the way, it is interesting that the Orthodox were not present at this conference either. Although Abhishiktananda did have some contact with Orthodox spiritual figures, Eastern Christian mysticism does not seem to have played any role in his inner dialogue. In a sense that is very understandable considering the attitude of many Orthodox toward the “non-Christians.”
9. There is also the criticism that Abhishiktananda is too narrowly focused on Advaita Vedanta and ignores so much else about Hinduism. The fact is that is where his inner experience first emerges—at Arunachala and with Ramana Maharshi. All else is a development off that. His letters and diary show that he was fully aware of many other facets of Hinduism including the strong bhakti traditions. For him it all pointed to this central reality: the final realization of the non-dual Mystery. To criticize him for that is like taking someone who has had a very deep experience of the Presence of Christ in his heart and in his being and expecting him to give the same weight to this as to the “rosary hour” or “making a novena,” etc. Religious practices can abound and they are all good, more or less, but once the essential has been realized, there is a kind of focus on that wherby other things fade into the background.

10. Speaking of Hinduism, classically speaking there was no such thing. “Hinduism” is an invention of 19th Century Europeans and a wave of westernized Indians at about the same time. Then came this notion of neo-Hinduism, a kind of monolith of all kinds of things patched together in supposedly one religion. And the modern world pretty much sees it that way—Hinduism as a world religion among other world religions. Classically speaking there was only the “sanatana dharma.” In Sanskrit the root “dhr” or dhria means to uphold, to support, to sustain. The word “dharma” has no real equivalent in English but often it is translated as “religion,” “law,” “duty,” “code of conduct,” etc. All really mistaken or very weak renderings. So instead of that very empty word “religion” what we have here is what eternally holds it all together. It is a kind of vision or realization of what is at the basis of all reality, and then this realization is multiplied and multiplied into numerous symbolic forms and practices and myths and ways of life. Certainly there did develop corruptions and distortions but this is inevitable in such a diverse phenomenon. But note, strictly speaking we do not have here “religion”—this word comes from “religio” meaning to bind. So religion means attachment and adherence to doctrine and also a founder. There really is none of that in the Sanatana Dharma—inspite of so-called ultra-orthodox Hindus, who are really more the invention of the 19th Century.
11. Lets give Murray Rogers the last word: “Abhishiktananda found himself reinterpreting what religion was all about. In the end he left it behind. Because he saw that people who were being led nearer to going beyond themselves with the help of the Spirit, those people would express—with many a stumble of course, because words cannot convey the experience—but express what was happening to themselves in whatever language their culture gave to them to use. For European Christians and Jews it would be expressed in terms of a Jewish background. It would be the Bible. But he quite understood that a deep Hindu would express him or herself in different religious and cultural terms. He had to cease to imagine that everybody had to get themselves somehow onto the European Christian pathway, to use the same words or the same scriptures. Every person was given by God, in His love for us human beings, the wherewithal to be able to offer love and worship and to adore the Beyond, within whatever language and bulture by birth, and most of all by silence. It didn’t matter. We still have not caught up with that yet. I mean we still feel that our words or our doctrines matter most.

The Dalai Lama, the Orthodox Church, Hiking, and the TPP & the Surveillance State

Ok, this is a hodge-podge of topics but so is my brain at the moment….so here goes:

A. The Dalai Lama recently made a statement that shook up some of the world media and some religious circles. He said that women have a greater capacity for compassion and that….the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman. Indeed! Well all the great world religions have a problem in this regard. Why is it that women always seem to need to “push” a door open in all these religious traditions? Irregardless of what the spirituality or religious doctrine is, the male consciousness seems always to have difficulty letting go of “leadership” roles to women—no matter what the religion is. So in that context what the Dalai Lama said is quite remarkable, and kudos to him for being the most “advanced” religious leader of our time.

This of course brings me back to my own narrow little Catholic world! The debate about women priests (what debate? you might rightly ask) is depressing and inane. Because the recent popes have come down so hard against the ordination of women it has become impossible even to discuss the issue in official circles, and any theologian who writes about it positively will be censured or condemned. For the Church to come out in favor of women’s ordination it would mean admitting it made a serious doctrinal mistake, and THAT ain’t gonna happen! So that’s the inane part. Now for the depressing part. Basically the argument against such ordination is based on two points: a.) the priest symbolizes Jesus and Jesus was a male; 2.) the Church has never ordained women. The second point is not even worth discussing because the “never done it before” argument holds only for a tradition that has totally fossilized. The more serious argument is about this symbolism thing.

That is a bit more gnarly because Catholic doctrine holds that the priest symbolizes and represents Christ within the life and ritual of the Church. Thus the priest has to be male because Jesus was male. Now the problem with this is that in focusing on the historical Jesus of Nazareth we forget that the incarnation means that God took up all humanity, not just maleness. The Gospel of John says that the Word became sarx, “flesh,” meaning the Logos took on the fullness of the human condition(one might want to say the Logos “entered samsara”). The Gospel does not make a point of the Logos becoming male. Maleness in this case is incidental; it’s merely that in historical/biological existence you can’t be both, you can’t occupy two spaces at the same time as it were. But to absolutize this “choice” of maleness, as if there were some mysterious “male principle” in the Divine is just plain wrong. Maleness and femaleness are not just appearances or “shadow realities” but neither are they some absolutes. Thus any terms/symbols for God, like Father or Mother, are very relative and in fact can be quite misleading. We can only tentatively privilege “Father language” because Jesus used it, but we have to see through it and beyond it. Patristic writings tend to emphasize the fact that God assumed all of humanity in Jesus; Paul does not emphasize the historical Jesus of Nazareth but rather the Risen Christ, who is, yes, in continuity with Jesus of Nazareth but we no longer know him “according to the flesh”; and finally in the Resurrection life there is no more male and female, Jew or gentile, etc. So it seems there is plenty of leeway for the Church to have female priests—because as priests they symbolize the WHOLE activity of God, not just the maleness of Jesus. But you know it “ain’t gonna happen” because what is really at issue underneath the theological language and arguments is the notion of power. That’s why there are no women cardinals even though you don’t even have to be a priest to be a cardinal.

B. The next topic is the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople has summoned all the leaders, the Metropolitans and Archbishops of all the various Orthodox Churches for a meeting. It is to prepare for an All-Orthodox Synod in 2015. The problem of course is that not all the Orthodox Churches recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople—some of them are so split off and so isolated within their little “purity of faith” that they are no more than a sect. And this is precisely one of the problems that this Patriarch wants to address: the tendency of Orthodox Churches to turn inward in a very unhealthy way, to become obsessed about the “purity of doctrine,” to become bearers of a sclerotic tradition instead of a living tradition, and to become preoccupied with what is nothing more than a sick and narrow nationalism rather than a universal and all-embracing faith. Here is a most remarkable statement by Metropolitan Zizioulas, who is also an excellent Greek theologian in his own right and a true leader of the Greek Church. The following is from an article in Asia News:
“In this regard, the Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas , co-chairman of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox and eminent theologian has told us that ” the greatest danger to Orthodoxy , but also for the whole Christian world, is not atheism, secular power in general or its various enemies. Nobody in history has been able to dispel the truth. The greatest danger comes from its self-marginalization . And this happens every time a movement, a spiritual force refuses to confront and come to dialogue with all social and intellectual movements of its era. Why must always remember that history is not monolithic”.

“The story – Zizioulas continues – is the space in which you exercise the freedom of the human being . And freedom in the ‘arc of human life is characterized by the expression of diverse opinions and consequently the dialectic of “you “and” no. “Only at the end ( in the eschatological sense ) human freedom will be expressed as a” yes ” , that turned to God and to the truth.The Church has established itself over time on this consideration. From the beginning, the first Christian communities dedicated themselves to constructive dialogue with Judaism and the Greek world. It reached its highest point in the so-called patristic period, in which the Church dared to tackle a constructive dialogue with the culture of the time, sealing it with his own truth . Only in the modern world has the so-called division between sacred and profane taken place in the world of culture, which has pushed the Church out of the cultural and civil sphere, with damaging consequences not only for the Church, but for civilization itself”.
“Therefore – continues Zizioulas – any escape from the historical reality and the continuing search for identity exclusively in the past, without taking into account the historical, social and cultural context in which the tradition of identity developed, is equivalent to first Orthodoxy and then to marginalizing romanticizing”.
“It ‘s very important then – said the Metropolitan of Pergamon – that we men of the Church, we give up our narcissist self-satisfaction that only leads to sterile confrontations. Instead we must learn how to offer creation the essence of the true witness, that of Our Lord”.
C. Hiking. Do you know when hiking became popular, when it became an activity that people took up for its own sake, and not just to get from Point A to Point B? Most people think that modern hiking developed from ancient pilgrimages when people used to walk miles and miles to go to some holy place. There may be some truth to this, but the real beginnings of the “hiking phenomenon” came with the Romantic Movement in Europe in the late 18th Century. With the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason rationality and human control were the dominant motifs and this extended even to the human environment in which people lived, like their gardens. The well-manicured, thoroughly planned, minutely structured garden became the ideal of the upper classes. The Romantic Movement was a revolt against all that, and the Romanticists urged people to get out of their structured gardens out into the wild nature. The ideal was not man-made nature but the wilderness. The sources of life were to be found not in what we construct and analyze but in the mysterious forces of wild nature, etc. So many people took up trips into the mountains and forests, and this was the beginning of the hiking tradition. By the middle of the 19th Century John Muir was only carrying on in that same tradition when he took off for the open road and into the Sierras.

Aldous Huxley: “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”

A book I recommend for anyone wanting to explore this topic is Walking Distance by Robert and Martha Manning.

The TPP and the Surveillance State.

Really what can you say about all this? The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a total sham which our government is trying to sneak in. I do not know all the details, but people whom I trust in the environmental movement and the labor movement have been crying bloody murder on this one. The Surveillance State is another story. We have all been inundated with the stories of NSA spying on everyone. President Obama recently made a speech in which he promised to curtail some of the NSA activity. It was a poor presentation of a very poor effort, but its real deadly meaning is brought out by Chris Hedges in a razor-sharp piece entitled “What Obama really meant was:”

Chan Buddhism

This is the Buddhism of China and the true ancestor of Zen whose development we mostly associate with Japan. Also the Buddhism of Korea and Vietnam (see Thich Nhat Hanh) derives from Chan–we can also call it Chinese Zen. The different varieties of Buddhism is a phenomenon of interest in itself, but I would like to focus just a bit on Chan because of its peculiar beauty and power and simplicity. It holds some of the most remarkable figures in Buddhist history (like Hui-neng), and it enchanted someone like Thomas Merton for whom it contained the essence of Zen (but also he recognized that practically speaking he had to learn Zen from the Japanese and then he discovered Tibetan Buddhism which brought a very methodical, practical approach to very deep meditation—but after his encounter with the Tibetans he was going to go to Japan and meet some Zen masters there and then onto Iran and meet a number of Sufis there, so who knows how he would have finally landed!)

Guo Jun is an extremely young Chan Master and abbot of a monastery in Singapore, only 41 years old. He came from a humble, poor background but got a college degree in a scientific discipline. He began his Chan studies and practice at age 14 but did not become a monk until about the age of 24. He trained both in Singapore and in Korea, where the Zen monasteries are very austere and demanding beyond anything anywhere else I ever heard of. He himself is a very gentle, humane man in whose person one can see the true spirit and wisdom of Chan. Let us now listen to his own words:

“The breath is always there. It never leaves us. We abandon our breath, run away from our breath, ignore the breath. The breath is always there, waiting for us. The breath is always there, precisely as the present moment is always here. We are born with the most precious thing there is, which money cannot buy. We are born with the breath. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, our most loyal friend is the breath. It stays with us. And yet, so often we neglect this friend and take it for granted. We ignore the breath. We betray the breath. But when we want to go back to the breath, the breath
welcomes us. The breath is our treasure. It gives us courage and support. The breath is our refuge. Keep returning and returning and returning to the breath. Perhaps this sounds easy. It is not. Nothing
that is precious and to be cherished is easy…. It is not easy to always come back to the breath, to come back to the present moment. Still, in
reality it is quite simple. We are born with the breath; we are born with Buddha nature. At the end of the day, it is our choice. We all have a
choice to follow the path back to the breath and the present moment.”

Comment: Do not be fooled or lulled by the simplicity of these words or the seeming “obviousness” of this teaching. It flows from a profound
realization and is presented with a spiritual ingenuity of real depth masked by “everyday” simplicity.

Guo Jun again: “The purpose of Chan practice is practice. It is not this goal or that goal. There is no goal in Chan. There isn’t something in Chan that we want to attain. Rather, through engaging with Chan or living Chan, you discover yourself, you become more aware of yourself. But at the end of the practice, you get nothing. There is nothing for you to get. Don’t think: I want awakening. I want enlightenment. That is my
goal. That is what I am striving for. No! There is no goal. The Heart Sutra says, ‘No goal, no achievement, no attainment.’”

And again: “When our lives are not in harmony we experience stress, pressure, and tension. There is an imbalance. As a result, there is conflict. This is “duhkha,” a Sanskrit word that is central to Buddhism and usually translated as “suffering.” In fact, duhkha has many different levels of meaning. In a basic sense, it simply means “out of place.” The Buddha says duhkha is like a wheel out of joint: it can’t rotate on its axle. The wheel whines and complains as it turns. So, similarly, in our life when we feel out of place, we experience dissonance, whether in body, mind, body and mind, the self and others, or the self and the world. Duhkha can also mean “entrapped.” Sometimes we are trapped in our emotions, or in what feels like an impossible situation or relationship. We are overwhelmed and feel helpless and overpowered. All these conditions cause us to feel out of tune. This could also be thought of as a kind of disconnection or alienation. We’re out of position. There is friction. Our lives are not moving well. It is this position of entanglement that Chan addresses.”

Guo Jun describes the hair-raising discipline of a monastic retreat in a Korean Zen monastery: “The daily schedule was brutal. We woke at 3 am and finished at 11pm. We had only fifteen minutes each for breakfast, lunch , and dinner…. For 90 days we did not take a shower. We had a basin of water that was filled from a bamboo pipe that ran down from the mountain and used a towel to scrub ourselves clean. No break time, no time to relax, no nap after lunch. Sleeping after 11. Waking at 3. Most of us did not even have a room. We sat in the meditation hall on a folded-up cushion, which was also our bed. Each sitting was at least an hour, and we had to sit in full lotus. No movement was tolerated. If the monitors, who were senior monks, saw us move an inch, they’d hit us with a stick. In the morning, after waking up, we had to do 108 prostrations in only 10 minutes. Up and down, up and down…. The Korean terminology for this kind of intensive retreat is kyol che, which means ‘very tight dharma.’ You have to be very fast, very precise, always in the moment. There is no time to think, wander off, and daydream. If you fall behind, you get hit. There is nothing symbolic about these blows. Thwack! You dare not whimper or cringe…you have to bow and gently say, ‘thank you.’ In Korean. And then there is the pain, so much pain. Tears roll down from your eyes the moment you move your legs as you come out of the full lotus. There is so much pain that you don’t know where the pain is coming from…. And then the food. Kimchi all the time, kimchi and white rice. The kimchi smells like rotten eggs. It was repulsive…it made me gag, and I had to force down every bite. It was the only food, so you either ate it or starved! For seven days and nights in the middle of the retreat we were subjected to what is called in Chinese yong men jin jing, which translates as ‘great courageous diligence.’ This was an even more intensive practice than your run-of-the-mill Kyol Che. For 7 days and nights we were not allowed to lie down. Twenty four hours of continuous sitting practice for 7 straight days. We learned how to sleep while sitting, but when you were caught dozing, you were hit. You learned to sleep without moving. Before going into this retreat they warned us that it was called the demon training camp. We called it the cave of the tiger.”
Comment: Guo Jun is wise enough to recognize that this is not for everyone; that in fact few could survive such a regime for very long, and therefore it would be counterproductive. Even in his own case, of all the monks that began this retreat with him only about half survived to finish it—the others all would bail out at some point. What is most remarkable is that for most Chan monks this kind of retreat is only done once or twice in one’s monastic life, but Guo Jun did it a number of times—one year he did it 3 times in that same year. You might think that this is a kind of performance trick of a “spiritual Olympics,” or an attempt to “force” enlightenment as it were. Well, that certainly may be a possibility for some seekers, but it was not the case for Guo Jun. It stemmed more from his supremely intense determination to give himself totally to that Buddhist practice; and even if we do not wish to follow him in that aspect of his life, and he would be the first one to advise against it for most of us, we still can learn that lesson of determination which is an absolutely essential ingredient of all spiritual paths.”

Speaking of enlightenment, Guo Jun has some wise and incisive comments: “How can we tell whether enlightenment has occurred? When does a teacher test a disciple? Does the student say : ‘I’m prepared, now you can test me.’ No, the teacher usually tests the disciple when the disciple least expects it. This is when state of mind is most natural, in its original state…. Chan masters do not say, ‘I have a feeling I’m going to be enlightened soon. Enlightenment is close!’ There is no such thing. All Chan masters became awakened and enlightened when they least expected it. Chan masters don’t think about enlightenment; they don’t think about awakening; they only think about practice, practice, and practice. As a result, they never expect enlightenment, and then enlightenment comes. If you just keep practicing, and you do not grasp at enlightenment or run away from it, enlightenment will get you. All the Chan masters only want to practice; they don’t want to be enlightened or awakened. As a result they became enlightened and awakened. No Chan masters wanted to be Chan masters. And as a result, they became masters of Chan.”

And then there is this provocative teaching: “Sitting itself will not give you enlightenment. Meditation will not give it to you. It will only lead you to the brink. Retreating from the world will not liberate you. Happiness is not found in a secluded forest hut or an isolated cave. Enlightenment comes when you connect to the world. Only when you truly connect with everyone and everything else do you become enlightened. Only by going deeply and fully into the world do you attain liberation. This is the meaning of the star—the sudden illumination of our connection to the rest of the universe.”

Comment: A remarkable statement. The reference to the “star” pertains to the story of Gautama Buddha, who achieved full enlightenment after a whole night of meditation when in the early dawn he saw the morning star. The teaching here seems to contradict that of some other notable figures, like Milarepa, who advised people to “flee the world” and live in solitude. And of course our own Desert Fathers, like Antony and Arsenius, counseled the “seeker” to “flee the world.” The so-called discord is only a superficial difference in emphasis and Guo Jun’s words actually point to the same deep reality which is to awaken to the interconnectedness of all that is real. In a sense one could say “different strokes for different folks” in that some people will get to that reality one way and others another, but that all journey toward that same point of connection. The hermit in his cave is also “going deeply and fully into the world” as Merton was fond of pointing out, and most persons in society are actually evading that reality by trying to ground their lives on their individualistic ego self. It is actually this that we must “flee.” Interestingly enough the modern world mimics this spiritual drive in all the gizmos it provides for “connectedness”—but this is mostly to keep that ego from feeling isolated which it is by nature and to keep up an appearance of being connected to the world. Also, fascinating is the fact that Dostoievesky’s Father Zosima and Alyosha are such prime examples of what Guo Jun points to here! Read that section on the monk in The Brothers Karamazov!

Finally, Guo Jun is not blind to the problems of modern Buddhism: “Over the years in China, Buddhism deteriorated and nowadays among many Chinese, there is the impression that Buddhism is only about praying for the deceased. Tok tok cheng is onomatopoeic Asian slang that mimics the sound of the striking of the wooden block and ringing of the bowls in Buddhist ritual. It makes fun of empty, silly services that became the way monasteries and monks supported themselves by officiating at funeral services, chanting, striking the block, and ringing the bowl. Tok tok cheng. This kind of empty commercialization of Buddhism and exploitation of the importance Chinese people put on funeral practices caused monks to become known as parasitic maggots and worms who live in and feed off the rice of others…. Funerals must be grand in China to signify that you are an important person. There can be thirty monks, all chanting, a full orchestra, lots of food, and offerings of all kinds. The belief is that chanting creates merit that accrues to the deceased and ensures a better rebirth. Professional mourners may be employed who beat their heads and weep, pound the floor and carry on, all for a fee. The monks are very much part of the show, part of ushering the deceased through the ten halls of hell by burning joss paper and hell money (US one-dollar bills are popular; George Washington represents the king of hell who you are bribing to allow you to pass through the ten halls)…. Chan became entwined with these cultural superstitions, and it was enmeshed in the way we Chinese believe that life and death are permeable and interconnected. The folk superstitions of China became the bread and butter of Chan monks and monasteries, much to the detriment of the religion.”

Comment: The problem that Guo Jun talks about here is peculiar to China and other parts of Asia, but Buddhism in the U.S. has a whole other set of problems that are equally an obstacle to a healthy and authentic development of that religion. As I have pointed out in more than one posting, all the major religious traditions are equally seriously afflicted with a kind of obscurantism and superstition and fundamentalism and superficiality. One has to walk carefully and alertly on the religious path in order not to be misled. Simple Chinese peasants and well-to-do, college-educated Americans are equally vulnerable to what is in effect an “appearance” of religion, not the real thing.

One last thing: In India and in South Asia begging for food by the monks was an acceptable practice and so it became part of their spiritual practice. Cultural patterns and practices are always intertwined with spirituality. When Buddhism came to China, it was another story. The Chinese have always looked down on begging of any kind. To live off alms is simply unacceptable. So Chan monasticism developed the notion of work as part of their spiritual practice. And so the monks became self-sufficient to a large degree. This is very much like Benedictine monasticism in the West in this regard at least. Of course modern China is a whole different story and presents so many problems to a real presence of Buddhist monasticism that it can hardly said to even be there in relation to the numbers of its population. Modern China, even as Guo Jun recognizes and admits, is rampant with materialism, greed, commercialism and the drive for monetary success to such an extent that it even dwarfs us in the U.S.—and that’s saying a lot!!

All quotes are from Guo Jun’s book: Essential Chan Buddhism

Outside the Church There Is No Salvation

These words are an actual doctrinal statement of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox, and most conservative evangelical Protestant groups. First enunciated by St. Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd Century, they have been reasserted by many popes, bishops, and church councils. The kicker is that if you believe in the literal meaning of these words you will be a heretic, at least in the Catholic Church. The term “heretic” has a chilling resonance considering the old history of the church, but today all it means is that “you’re not one of us.” The point is that the meaning and interpretation of a doctrine can and does evolve as understanding grows. What is peculiar and funny about all this, at least for the Catholic scene, is that we never admit we made a mistake or even that we changed our understanding. You can never say that about any doctrinal statement. The words always stay the same; the old meaning/interpretation is thrown into an ecclesial closet never to see the light of day again, and a new meaning is trotted out. That closet has gotten quite crowded over the centuries!

Consider the following comments from the current Catholic Catechism:

“How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846)…. Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (CCC 846)).

But the Church leaves a kind of “backdoor” open. It points out that in fact all kinds of people can be “saved,” even those “outside” the Church. So the Catechism goes on almost quoting Vatican II: “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Frankly, as far as this goes, I prefer the wording of Kallistos Ware, bishop, monk and great scholar of the Orthodox Church:

“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (G. Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church”, in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.”

Ok, all this is surely an advance over saying that all non-Catholics, non-Christians are damned. But it still leaves the interreligious encounter in a quandry Over the years many theologians and religious thinkers have wrestled with the full implications of all these kinds of statements and doctrines and have not really been able to find a satisfying explanation for there are some real problems here. Some of the best thinking, like Karl Rahner’s, resulted in this notion of “anonymous Christians”— to put it crudely, every person is a Christian whether they realize it or not! It privileges the Church in a sneaky way of sorts and that offends adherents of other religious traditions. Imagine telling the Dalai Lama, “You know you’re really ok in our eyes because you really are a Christian deep down!” Well, Buddhists could say every person is a Buddhist whether they realize it or not and we would object to that probably! You can kind of see the problem with that approach. And most importantly that kind of approach avoids truly encountering what another religious tradition has to say about itself, about reality, avoids truly encountering the “otherness” of the other tradition and learning from it, etc. Another variant of this approach is to see various boundaries to the Church. First there is the very visible boundary of the Roman Catholic Church, then the further out boundary of being a Christian, and then an almost invisible boundary of all basically good people of good will, and somehow the Church in its wholeness encompasses all these boundaries, but Catholics will again insist that the “fullness” of the Church is only within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. And the most crucial point of all this is that all other religious traditions are basically inadequate and will find their fulfillment when they enter the Christian fold in a very explicit way.

When Abhishiktananda first came to India, about 1949, and during the first few years there, he pretty much adhered to this theological view which was quite progressive for that day. With the arrival of Vatican II that became the standard interpretation of that doctrine, but Abhishiktananda was changing rapidly due to his openness toward learning from his Hindu brethren and especially due to his own religious experience in the light of the Advaita teaching of the Upanishads. James Stuart, a good friend and editor of his writings, had this comment about one of his essays: “In this article—a contribution to the Theology of Religions, a subject which deeply interested both him and Dr. Panikkar—he makes very clear his dissatisfaction with the widely accepted ‘theology of fulfillment’, which envisaged a final absorption or replacement of all other religions by Christianity. (This had been the assumption of his book Sagesse, which he later tried to tone down in its English version, Saccidananda.)”

By the late 1960s Abhishiktananda had turned the traditional position totally upside down. Now it was no longer the Church inviting Hindus(and others) to the fullness and fulfillment of their spiritual yearnings, but it was the Church and Christianity that needed that experience within Hinduism of Advaita and articulated so powerfully in the Upanishads, it was the Church that needed this gift from India in order to arrive to its fullness and true divine mission. Here is Abhishiktananda from a letter in 1968:

“As I am more and more persuaded, the salvation of the world and of the Church lies in realizing that fundamental experience of the human being, of which the best expression so far seems to have been given by the Upanishads. Any construction that seeks to be solid has to be built on this unbreakable block.”

And then from another letter the whole idea of conversion is jettisoned: “Only this month I have had with me a 22 year old student for his holidays. He comes to spend every holiday with me, and is like a son to me. It is marvelous to have such a deep and close relation with Hindus. But the further I go, the less I see how these real Hindus, despite their admiration for Christ, could ever enter into the framework of Christianity. I cannot see a single one of my friends, young or not so young, who could become a Christian. This sets a terrible theological problem, which begins to trouble our young theologians here. Living as I do more than anyone in both environments at the same time, I see less than anyone how to solve the problem.”

And of course the still more gnarly problem of the relationship of Advaita to Christian mysticism is even more intractable to any conceptual/theological solution. These two do not admit of easy reconciliation/formulation. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda believed that no “theology of world religions” could ever be reconciled with Christian claims and at the same time do justice to what these other religions claim. Comparing the words and symbols and concepts of each religion, while a worthwhile endeavor in at least appreciating what others are claiming, will never lead to that ultimate “common ground.” That common ground is an ultimately transcendent reality beyond all words and symbols and it can only be “realized” as a transcendent reality and for this we have this innate capacity that is open to that which is beyond rational, discursive analysis—in the Hesychast tradition this is sometimes called “the heart.” (Abhishiktananda, for example, was critical of his dear friend, Sara Grant, who had made a valiant effort to show the similarity between Sankara and Aquinas following the guidance of her mentor, the great Jesuit Sanskrit scholar De Smet.) Of course the scholar/intellectual who is learned in the claims and symbols of another religious symbol and who is also at the same time a true and devoted spiritual seeker within his own tradition will be in an excellent position to begin to evaluate the words and symbols of his own tradition in the light of that other tradition.

Abhishiktananda’s “solution” is that, for example in the case of Hinduism and Christianity, followers of each way dive deep down within each tradition, within the words and symbols of each tradition, going “all the way” to the ground of their religious tradition and then they will be able to look each other in the face and recognize that “smile” which is truly beyond all words and symbols and doctrines—like the smile of the Buddha which so transfixed Thomas Merton on his trip to Asia. That means “the mystic” has priority over the theological/religious intellectual—but not the “monopoly” in religious encounters. And so of course the real “dialogue” will only take place between people of deep experience who are witnesses of the depth of their own tradition. (Of course Abhishiktananda would also say that at least for the Christian what he/she learns from his fellow Hindu will make this “journey” ever more “powerful”—freeing it perhaps from being absolutized in the Semitic-Greco terms of Christian tradition.) This does not please the theologians for the very dynamic of their profession is to analyze religious concepts. This does not please church officials for it seems to bypass their authority. This does not please the average church goer for it seems to complicate what he/she had learned in a fundamental catechism/evangelism class where the Mystery of God has the stuffings knocked out of it. So it does not please anyone! Except the true mystic who simply seeks the Mystery which dwells in his/her heart.

So here is an extended quote from Abhishiktananda from early 1973, less than a year from his death:

“What a purification from all attachment is this meeting with the East, which compels us to recognize as namarupa all that previously we considered to be most sacred, to be the very Truth contained in ‘words’…. Later we have to be able to recognize the value of the namarupa, no less than we did ‘before’, but we have discovered another level of truth—the blinding sun of high noon. Our time is one of those without precedent in the history of the world, when the worldwide coming together makes us clearly see that we ourselves and our whole tradition and every tradition are essentially conditioned. Every religion is rooted in a culture, beginning with the most primordial and hidden archetypes which necessarily govern its view of the world. All that is citta [thought] is namarupa. And every namarupa has to be laid bare, so that the satyam [Real] may be unveiled. What a savage but marvelous purification! No longer even to say ‘I am’, but to be it to such an extent that the whole being ‘exudes’ it…. And then we have understood. We find ourselves once more Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, for each one has his own line of development, marked out already from his mother’s lap. But we also have the ‘smile.’ Not a smile which looks down condescendingly from above, still less a smile of mockery, but one which is simply an opening out like the flower unfolding its petals…. When religions are too close, like the Muslim, the Jewish and the Christian, we look for common denominators. But when the fancy takes us, we can equally well make an eclectic Hindu-Christian system…. Then we realize that on the level of the namarupa no comparison is valid. Religions are grandiose dream-worlds. But be careful not to call them dreams from the point of view of a dreaming…. The man who is awake marvels at the dream; in it he grasps the symbolism of the mystery. He knows that every detail has its significance. The only mistake is to want to absolutize each symbol. And the difficulty is that no deep ‘drive’ can be expressed without symbols. There is no religion without a culture. There is no Christ, if he is not linked to a time, a place, an ethnic group.”

So the real problem from the Christian standpoint is that we absolutize the normal and inevitable specific symbols and language of that transformation from the Semitic beginnings of Christianity, that specific time and place of the Middle East to its inculturation in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity. What many of us wonder is do we really need to ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE simply repeat that language. In other words, is the language of the Fathers of the Church to be absolutized to such an extent that we cannot find other expressions that come from other cultures and religious experiences as the reality of Christ comes to these cultures and religious consciousness. What if that religious experience is truly authentic and leads to good and holy lives, does it not lead to some kind of “explosion” (as Abhishiktananda loved to put it) when it meets the Christian complex of concepts and symbols? An explosion where all concepts and words and symbols, on both sides of the encounter, are shattered and remain not the same. The interesting thing is that in this encounter both sides are really shy about this, really apprehensive about such encounters, Buddhists and Hindus just as much as Christians.

Before I sign off, just a few notes:

First of all, note that there are three important words in that doctrinal statement I quoted: “outside”—a problematic word to say the least; “church”—a loaded term with many “trap doors”; and “salvation”—my favorite word here and I believe the one that needs a whole treatment on its own because I think it is greatly misunderstood and misapplied within Christian circles. More about that later.

Secondly, I have emphasized the Christian-Hindu encounter and the writings of Abhishiktananda (whom I believe is one of the most important Christian spiritual writers of our time). But what about Buddhism? Many Christian monks have been attracted to Buddhism because their own tradition seems to stifle the “mystic journey.” Many others have delved deeply into Buddhism because on the surface it seems to present less doctrinal challenges to Christianity than say the Hinduism of Advaita Vedanta. But I think that is a surface evaluation. In reality I think Buddhism presents an incredibly more difficult and more comprehensive challenge to Christianity. To simply borrow from Buddhism a “contemplative style” of living or to take up simply some techniques of meditation is not to do justice to the depth, the complexity, and the comprehensiveness of the “Buddhist Way.” It is much more than a mere “science of the mind/consciousness” as some Christians and even many Buddhists claim it is. Maybe we shall return to this later!

A happy New Year to all, and a Blessed Epiphany. Now for your homework: what do you make of the Three Wise Men coming from the East to worship the Christ child?

Monastic Identity or “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

Like an old dog returning again and again to an old chewed-up bone, I return once more to this topic! Why? Maybe I am so puzzled at a certain phenomenon which I witness among Western Christian monks—mostly Catholic groups like the Cistercians, Benedictines, and even the Carthusians, and of course a flurry of smaller less well-known groups. If you look at the websites of their various monasteries, you will find a certain preoccupation with what I call “tribal identity.” “We belong to this tribe; here is our tribal boundary line.” I hate to put it this way, but that’s what it is in effect. This thing of “being a monk” subtly becomes a matter of wearing a certain identity marker. The point of wearing an “identity badge” becomes extremely important. Now of course it is never explicitly or crudely put in such terms, but the underlying message is there. What is emphasized is being a Cistercian monk, for example, instead of just being a monk. Belonging to this or that group becomes an essential ingredient. In the online self-presentation of too many monasteries there is this subtext of the importance of monastic credentials. It is as if the spiritual admonition, “Know thyself,” and the penetrating question, “Who am I,” became institutional calls for the credentials of the monastic life within this or that particular group. But actually being a true monk can never be that; it must always be something deeper and more universal and ALWAYS transcending every institution, when this is correctly understood.

Now of course no one becomes a monk in some abstract or “universal” way. One enters a particular group with a certain history in a certain time and place with a certain manner of living. Ok. One can also admit that there are teachings and traditions that are a very valid part of learning what it is to become a monk. Note, I said to “become” a monk. We need to stop seeing monastic life as “being a monk”—it is better to see it always as “becoming a monk.” As the great Macarius said, “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks.” That way we stop naming ourselves as monks just because we belong to this or that group/monastery. That is only an institutional label. Helpful in some cases; ok in many cases; really detrimental in too many monastic lives.

Ok, so one enters a particular monastic group/monastery and there begins the process of learning. In the Christian context, one enters monastic life because one has somehow encountered the Great Mystery of God and one is drawn to a total surrender to that mystery. One senses that Mystery is within one’s heart, but the average person needs guidance and a certain ambience and environment to grow into a full Awakening to the meaning of that Mystery and that Encounter. This can and does happen everywhere and anywhere under any conditions, but the usual, normal place is what is called “monastic life” however lived. The articulation of the meaning, the goal, the purpose of living in a monastic community can be formulated in different ways but it always points in this direction (as when the early monastic father Cassian speaks of “purity of heart” and “kingdom of God”). There are of course those monks who see living in a contemplative community as almost an end in itself—the community life then becomes not a means to an end but the very point of the life. I won’t get into that debate; suffice it to say that I consider this an unfortunate mistake of vision though often articulated with doses of true theology: Christianity as a communal religion, etc. (For others the celebration of the liturgy is the key point of monastic life—for some Benedictines—and with that I am even less in agreement.)

So the spiritual-seeking person enters a monastic way of life in some particular group that probably has a long history, many traditions, many writings by holy figures of the past who belonged to this group and who will provide some guidance and encouragement along the way. Learning all this and training in these traditional ways is true and proper and helpful. All this is good. But in “becoming a monk,” right from the outset, one’s vision should be directed to a fuller horizon than just simply being identified as a Cistercian or Benedictine, with the almost explicit proviso that if you are not just “like one of us” you are not one of us! “Becoming a monk” is not just exchanging a worldly set of credentials for some supposed spiritual/religious credentials. It is in fact transcending all credentials even as one does live within a concrete and identifiable context. The paradox of monastic life is that in becoming a Cistercian monk, for example, you will learn to transcend the Cistercian credential. Of course our best examples of this are Merton and Abhishiktananda. Not that every monk should follow or needs to follow the example of these two monks—for they are truly exceptional in every sense of the word—but somehow all of us need to learn from the pattern of their lives. Frankly I don’t think Catholic monastic institutions have learned anything deep from these two (and so many other less well-known figures), and in fact toward the end of his life Merton was very clear in not expecting much from the “institution” of monasticism, but he was opening up more and more to the true and deep charism of the monk.

As Merton saw it, institutional monasticism is an inevitable and necessary support structure for the ability to sustain a monastic life for most monks. In that regard it needs care and respect for a traditional way of life. A new monk has to learn a whole new pattern of life, and in this he/she is merely following in the footsteps of so many holy and kindred spirits. However, the institution also tends to become an end in itself and stifles the real and deep development of the monastic charism which can take on all kinds of appearances. In that famous last talk that Merton gave before he died, he was fond of quoting a Tibetan abbot who said to one of his monks, “From now on you are on your own!” And that was Merton’s message to his fellow Christian monks, and the meaning of that is that the institution can only take you so far. The really deep down work of “becoming a monk” is a very personal and transcendent affair of the heart that transcends all institutions even as you will live in such institutions for the most part. But becoming a monk is not equivalent to being a member of such an institution. (By the way one of the symptoms and signs of this problem is when monks believe it’s ok to spend millions on building their structures. Some will surely strongly disagree with this evaluation but it is my firm conviction that you can almost measure the degree to which monks are deluded by the matter of “credentials” by the amount of money they spend on building and decorating and refining their structures. Also of course how much effort they spend on gestures of self-definition.)

There is an old country western song, a plaintive melodious lyric first sung by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” It expresses a deep lament for a set of lost values that are seldom witnessed anymore but whose embodiment was always the mythical cowboy. Neither my voice nor my artistery is up to the magic of Waylon and Willie, but I also want to sing of “my heroes.” But my heroes have always been Milarepa and Han-shan and their like. My heroes have always been these magical, mythical figures who embody the values of monastic life and transcend all monastic credentials. In their own historical situations they were very marginal figures, never really fitting in with the monastic establishment, but now they are symbols of a monastic commitment that transcends all boundaries and has universal appeal.

Let me conclude by giving Han-shan the last word:

“Towering cliffs were the home I chose
bird trails beyond human tracks
what does my yard contain
white clouds clinging to dark rocks ​
every year I’ve lived here
I’ve seen the seasons change
all you owners of tripods and bells
what good are empty names”

“People ask the way to Cold Mountain​
but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn’t melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here”

“I’ve always loved friends of the Way
friends of the Way I’ve always held dear
meeting a traveler with a silent spring
or greeting a guest talking Zen
talking of the unseen on a moonlight night
searching for truth until dawn
when ten thousand reasons disappear
and we finally see who we are.”

(Translated by Red Pine)

Christmas, Paradise, and All That

The Coming…the First Coming, the Second Coming, the Coming…is The Awakening. The language of “The Coming” points to the Awakening. Christmas, when seen deeply, is an awareness and a celebration of the possibility of The Awakening—and for us Christians this begins with the story of Jesus.

I walk into the environs of a huge retail store where almost any item can be bought and which is completely decorated for Christmas. On the PA system they are playing the Ode to Joy. Marvelous. What a mixture, a concoction of the sublime and the superficial, of the beautiful and the crass, of consumerism and the spirit, of light and darkness. This is what the New Testament calls The World. The Awakening takes place within this World. It is the Light that is in the World, but the World cannot see it, cannot recognize it because The World is largely about something else altogether. Next they play “Gloria in Excelsis….” So it goes. The Christmas Narrative in the 2 Gospels is about the “hiddenness” of this Light in the World, of this Light in our hearts which also are a concoction of so many things. Its symbolic and mythic discourse does not take away from the historicity of this one person, Jesus Christ, whose poverty, hiddenness, vulnerability all point to the Real which is at the core of our hearts. Only when the Awakening is realized, even gradually, do we even begin to sense that Light, and then it might have all kinds of different Names ( like in Islam: Mercy, Compassion, Freedom, etc.)

In Christian theology the eschaton, the Second Coming, is the culmination of the First Coming which we celebrate at Christmas. The Second Coming is also elaborated and presented to us in a multitude of symbols and myths, but it all has to do with The Awakening. The eschaton, the “beyond time,” which we cannot directly apprehend through our rational, discursive faculties or through our self-centered ego identity, which we inevitably but uselessly try to imagine in terms of the values and symbols of the present, this eschaton, the “last hour,” is truly this present moment (John 5:25)—so teaches Abhishiktananda. As he puts it: The eschaton, the Second Coming, is my discovery of my own true identity within the mystery of God. This is the Awakening. The eschaton is already here in the present moment.” So it is with The Awakening.

Christmas is a profound mixture of the trivial, the crass and the unspeakably deep, the Mystery. It is fraught with symbols of The Awakening. But it is also mostly filled with a more primitive undeveloped religiosity where “God comes to us from the ‘outside.’” So it is with our usual understanding of Christmas and so it is with much of our religious services. And so we celebrate this “coming”—and why not? For too many of us it is the God who stands “over and against us,” somewhere “out there beyond,” who then comes in the person of Jesus Christ. We celebrate this moment each Christmas and the atmosphere is filled with good cheer, gift giving, warm fellow-feeling, etc. These are but shadows of shadows, so far removed from the really Real, but still there is no need to disparage this because they are also all little, feeble but true signs of The Awakening that beckons to us every moment. (When Uncle Scrooge in Dickens’ story converts from his isolated ego-centered identity to a communion with Tiny Tim and his family we see a hint of that Awakening!) And ultimately this Awakening, for us Christians, is very much tied to the person of Jesus Christ.

So at Christmas we Christians celebrate the Coming of Jesus Christ –but the Gospel of John, the deepest Gospel, and the Gospel of Mark, and the Letters of Paul all ignore this celebration! They all point to the meaning of the Awakening without the symbolism and mythological tropes of the Nativity narratives—but they have their own symbolic discourse. As usual, Abhishiktananda zeroes in on the main point: “And whoever penetrates within himself to the supreme mystery, in Christ, has passed into God, from death to life, from darkness to light, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me’(Gal 2:20).” Most Christians take these words in a very watered-down way, like some ethical “do-goodism,” “be like Jesus,” etc. But with The Awakening we will realize our deepest identity in these words.

So there is the Coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus, and the trajectory of that life that ends in a hideous death on the cross and then the “explosion”(as Abhishiktananda loved to call it) of the Resurrection, where all Names, all forms, all symbols, all that we can ever recognize explode and we are left with the really Real in its naked Presence and where there is no longer even any “ego I” left to say “Ah, here I stand before God.” No, there can no longer be any of that left, for to borrow from Augustine, God is closer to me than I am to myself. And in the Old Testament it was said that “No one can see God and live” (Exodus). So do not think that you can truly see God in the Nativity scene and still “live”—meaning to really see God there will also be the end of that ego-centered identity and existence. Do not think you will also see God, the true God, in the life of Jesus, and expect that ego-identity to live. What you probably will see is merely a projection of your own religious fantasies, distortions, shortcomings, limitations, etc all dressed up with the word “God.” But the Living God, the Absolute Mystery which Jesus addressed as Abba (and Abhishiktananda was so right in seeing in this the closest Semitic equivalent to Advaita) will only be seen when that ego-centered existence “dies” and is reborn as a completely new reality, “not one, not two” with God. And of course no one can even pretend to see the Living God in the Crucified One—there is no concept, no image, no name, no word, no idea, no notion, no symbol that can take us through that gate. Truly it will be harder for a camel to go through the eye of that needle…! But there will be the Resurrection, and so we become aware of The Awakening in our own hearts.

So this whole life of Jesus, this Coming, is an opening to our Awakening. And what do we awaken to? Here again we run into a lot of symbolic discourse. But there is one Biblical word that sums it all up: Paradise! Neither the word nor the notion appears often in the Bible but it is a very important term. The Christian monastic fathers saw the monk’s life as a “return to Paradise.” This is where human beings begin, where their life consists in this unspeakable intimacy with God—in Semitic terms this appears in the beginning of Genesis as a Garden, referring to a life awake to the advaita of the Absolute Presence within the human heart. This is the whole point of human life. But the word appears in its final and utter nakedness in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus speaks to the thief crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Paradise is everywhere and always. You are never NOT in Paradise, but the Awakening must take place to realize that. I know, I know that is just a bit too glib, too easy to say. When you are not experiencing excruciating pain or sitting in a concentration camp, mouthing words like that is just a bit too easy. Spiritual talk can be very cheap. However, these words must be said, must be repeated…even at great peril of misunderstanding…simply because they are true…perhaps the only Truth that matters. Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima spoke this way; so did Abhishiktananda. There can be different nuances of our elaboration and understanding of Paradise, but for Father Zosima it was filled with an atmosphere of endless forgiveness and boundless mercy and taking upon oneself the faults and flaws and misery of others in absolute joy. It is also the Perfect Joy of St. Francis. This is the Paradise Life. This is the result of The Awakening.

One last thought. As we turn toward that Awakening to the Reality of the Eternal Paradise of the heart, we are still very much in a world mixed with a lot of darkness, contingency and confusion. Nothing is here permanent, and it does not take great philosophers to point out that human life is marked by anxiety, by dread, by fear, deep down—this causes human beings to do all the crazy things they tend to do. And caused by what? Ultimately it is a fear of losing, or better,
of having taken away who we are. We are always afraid of losing something of who we think we are. Someone or something will come/happen that will negate who we are. We are ultimately afraid of not even being. And death is perhaps the greatest of these thieves! The ego-centered self is very well aware of its own fraility and its own tendency to collapse into nothingness so it is always in a state of anxiety and dread even as it dresses in wealth and power. But Jesus pointed out to us that we mistakenly worry about the “moth and rust” that can eat away this contingent reality or the thief that can come and steal it. Such an identity is a “false treasure.” When we are Awake to the Eternal Paradise Life of the heart, when no longer “I” live but the Risen Christ lives in me, there is no one that can do anything or say anything to take that away, there is no event that can “steal” that from me. Such is the freedom of the Awake Ones, from some of the Desert Fathers to St. Francis and so many others. Only this unchains us from the determinisms and the confusions of the world. If I “hoard” an identity that needs to be defended, protected, built-up (like the Tower of Babel), that very “I” will end in confusion and eventual nothingness—a life “outside of Paradise.”

Fascinating that maybe the best paradigm of Christian Awakening, St. Francis, was also one of the great advocates of meditating on the Christmas narratives of the Gospel in all their simplicity. This was not a childish thing, a regression to an infantile religiosity of folk tales, etc. No, it was an intuitive sense of the seeds of the Great Awakening that are planted in this Gospel of the Nativity. For Abhishiktananda, it is more in the beginning words of the Gospel of John. So different strokes for different folks! But in either case we have come a long, long way from “I Dream of a White Christmas.”

A Blessed Christmas to all!